Why a tie at number 2? Because it depends on what kind of film you've made. Have you made a film with a dynamic (and possibly famous) lead character that begs for theatrical distribution? Head to Toronto. Is your film a natural for a 50 minute slot on European television? Go to Amsterdam. Below, the pros and cons of each.
First up, IDFA
Our take: The most important all-documentary festival in the world keeps its reputation primarily by continuing to bring together more buyers and industry players than any other event. Everyone goes to IDFA and almost everyone is accessible (although you might have to get in line), with a lack of exclusive parties and more focus on festival-wide cocktail hours and mixers. It remains the top place to introduce your film to European buyers and American TV. The competition still means something, particularly for international titles (which may be getting their Sundance invite in the midst of the festival)...
The downside: ...but if you're not in competition, you may get lost. A huge (huge!) slate of films means that you're competing for attention with films from around the world. A deep divide between those who love IDFA and those who think it's best days are behind them (see comments below) Among the latter there's a sense that IDFA may be resting on it's laurels, particularly as a host of European documentary festivals have sprung up in the weeks preceding Amsterdam. Many think the Forum needs to be re-imagined, a sign of changing thoughts on the whole pitching forum concept. The fest's crackdown on premiere status this year struck many as a sign of panic at the festival and not helpful to filmmakers.
Important recent premieres: ROUGH AUNTIES, LAST TRAIN HOME, ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, EPISODE 3 - "ENJOY POVERTY"
Selection of US films screened at 2009 Fest: THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS, THE COVE, COLONY, WINNEBAGO MAN, THE HORSE BOY, SOUNDTRACK FOR A REVOLUTION
Our coverage of IDFA here.
Filmmaker: "Always very exciting. Amsterdam is a fantastic city, and IDFA has something for everyone. I've had films in the festival twice, and had my world premiere in the main competition there last year, which opened lots of doors (but not really in the US). My sales agent made plenty of sales out of IDFA, and I got quite a few festival invitations. I had a total of six screenings, was on the IDFA talk show, on Dutch TV, and gave several newspaper interviews, but none of this generated any international press or the coveted Variety review my sales agent was certain we'd get. I really like the festival staff and will definitely send my next film there. They paid for five night's hotel but no travel expenses. I can't think of anything bad I could say about IDFA, not even any minor criticisms. The festival has class."
Filmmaker: "could be the most overrated festival in the world, especially as it can have little to no effect on world sales. Festival also may be trying to hard to be NOT American in its programming choices an often feels too smart for its own good."
Filmmaker: "had a film out of competition, and can't say that
my festival experience differed from previous years when I only had a film in
the docs market and not in the festival. The Q&A's at some of the screenings were not great. Hospitality was ok
for out of competition screenings (3 nights, no flights), but I was not
informed of lunches etc, so really I was just doing what I would normally
do. Great for industry though with the Forum and the Docs Market, useful for
meeting commissioning editors. Festival films always seem very social issue
heavy. I like Docs for Sale, although I do not love their new venue as it makes
it more difficult to meet people. Overall, I might rather go back to Hot Docs
in the future (instead of IDFA);
although I still think Docs For Sale is better than the market/videotheque
at Hot Docs. Good for prestige and potential of film."
Filmmaker: "Considering how many places passed on my movie, I was more than surprised that IDFA picked it off the pile and put it into competition. I would echo many of the comments that went up last year for IDFA. It's great but maddening at the same time. Not much filmmaker support from the staff but considering how many films they program, it would be virtually impossible to hold everyone's hand. Again, as someone new to the game it was thrilling but overwhelming. They put the First Appearance competitors in their IDFA academy which is a great three-day seminar that goes over filmmaking, distribution, the lay of the land in the int'l doc world, etc. Great roundtables with buyers, commissioning editors, sales agents. It's a great opportunity to meet people face to face which is important in what amounts to a very small clique of doc tastemakers and buyers. Screenings are great. They ran my movie three times in excellent theaters - the classic Tuschinski and the modern Munt around the corner - and one industry screening. Good centralized Box Office and excellent mixers. At the nightly happy hours you run into everbody in the Doc universe and the nightly discussions are informative. Overall an incredible experience but between screening my film, working the buyers at Docs for Sale, and trying to drum up interest for the next project, it is a hell of a week. I'll be better at it next time, if I'm lucky enough to get in again. Paid for five nights at a local hotel."
Filmmaker: "I like idfa. They're a bit stingy though. Never pay for anything! Even when we're just flying from london. I think they only offer 2 nights in a shitty hotel also - which is never long enough. Amsterdam is a cool city though, which makes up for it. I'm also not always convinced by all the films here either. Its hit or miss, you have to sift through some questionable ones to get to the good stuff. There are always some really good films there, but they program a lot of films, so sometimes it takes a while to find them."
Filmmaker: "Losing it big time. (Programmer) has been there way too long, and programming very mediocre stuff."
Filmmaker: "Great setup so that it's easy to meet people. Paid all expenses. Sometimes difficult to lock down foreign TV execs because tied up with the market. Best nightly parties of any doc fest."
Filmmaker: "uptight issue-mentary people"
Filmmaker: "Can be overwhelming, but it's an amazing feeling to be a part of a real global documentary scene."
Filmmaker: "The best selection of films ever in one place, so a feast for the filmmaker/attendee. Ticket policy for filmmakers was very confusing and frustrating and not well organized. I had a point person to handle my film and all questions, but she was not organized at all, and impossible to reach by phone so I was very confused most of the week as to where I was supposed to be, when. I loved that you could go to press screenings, but the seats were always quickly used up and so no space available. The theaters were palatial and any filmmaker would love to see their film in a hall like Tuschinski! The Doc Market there was a pretty good set up, in that you could just go in at any time and meet other filmmakers and buyers. As a global venue, Amsterdam can't be beat. They love their docs."
Filmmaker: "went as a filmmaker in '03 and to the FORUM in '06, '07 and '08. One of the best festivals and I have always made lasting friends at various IDFAs. (Hell- I even started dating someone I met there.)The Forum and the fest are pretty separate though. In the last 3 years I went, I never made it to a film- only to the meetings and dinners and parties on houseboats. I would say that IDFA and Hot Docs are the only ones where you can be really sure to see all the broadcasters, if that's what you are after. I made my first sale there during a coffee break. I do remember in 03 when I went as a filmmaker, the room they gave us was awful- very thin walls- concrete floors, hard to sleep. Like a prison cell. But the city is so magical- it didn't matter that much."
Industry: "IDFA I believe is still the gold standard for doc filmmakers. I've gone the last 3 years, and it seems to get better and better. I mean you can get lost in the festival, but we've done well there. I like the programming and the discussions. The parties aren't fantastic but you stay busy non stop. They treat you well as directors but I don't think they fly you in unless you're famous. I would expect them to fly in the directors of the competition films but they don't. I like the fact that it's central located. The docs for sale is HUGE, maybe more important than the forum in some ways. I mean it heavily functions on the TV model...but to my knowledge that's still the main model for financing. I feel they challenge TV to get better at programming documentaries."
Industry: "The downside to
IDFA is their competition guidelines which prevent filmmakers from playing
certain festivals before premiering at the given festival. I find the
rules surrounding this somewhat arbitrary and in many cases detrimental to the
life of the film. For example, this year a certain film was prevented
from accepting a competition slot at a certain autumn festival (uh, wink.) due
to IDFA premiere guidelines. This was after the film had already
premiered in Toronto at TIFF. This film will be a challenge on the
American marketplace no matter what, and it is hard to say how a US screening
that could continue to build on the film's positive reception in Toronto could
be detrimental to IDFA, a largely European market. These rules I fear can
be very restrictive for the filmmaker and prevent them from accepting possibly
press-worthy and lucrative award opportunities on the festival circuit while
they are in waiting for the or IDFA premiere."
Industry: "Has rather lost its shine as a festival I think, to be honest. The selection is predictably left-wing and rather 70s in its taste, and the films are sometimes selected on the PC-ness of the subject matter rather than the quality of the production or storytelling. The forum is, like HotDocs, slowly coming round to a new way of doing things, reducing the big (but ineffectual) grandstanding of the central forum and moving to more valuable round tables and one-to-one pitches."
Industry: "They’ve had to go on the defensive a little bit. They’ve been a lot stricter about their premiere policy and there’s been a lot of bad feelings about that. They’re forcing German filmmakers not to have a national premiere at Liepzig. They’ve become the Microsoft of the festival circuit. They’re still the biggest documentary market in Europe certainly, but for American films, they want to premiere at Sundance and most Europeans would rather premiere at Berlin, for the prestige. You can see all the great Danish films – MONASTERY, BURMA VJ – at Copenhagen, and Danish cinema is a very important and growing cinema. This year was the weakest year I’d seen. They built the Forum around the idea that commissioning editors would come in with money but CE’s don’t have money anymore. All these forums have to diversify."
Industry: "fantastic, essential
festival for doc programmers. fairly
straightforward and easy access to screenings, strong programming. forum is a great
resource for both upcoming project awareness and networking (but)
Industry: "2009 made it even more clear that IDFA's programming is completist rather than curatorial. with 300 films there, one is bound to do a lot of sifting for gems, but the gems are there. And the general spirit of the fest is strong, though this programmer misses the convivial chaos of De Baile, their old HQ."
Industry: "I took part in both the Festival and Forum this year. The Fest is great – sometimes I feel that their programming is a bit relaxed and partly predictable – sometimes too TV for what we’re looking for, and euro-centric. Their staff is incredibly warm and helpful, really think they run the show well. And it’s a nice vibe (which you get with most doc fests). Their events are standard – nothing particularly ‘dutch’ about it, still their GUESTS MEET GUESTS cocktails are always well-attended, and I always run into the people I need to. The film schedule is fine – pretty smooth, though I mostly see films in the library. Amsterdam as a city however I find dreadful: rude locals, overpriced hotels (for what you get), not a lot of wifi (??!!!), the euro is a killer currency, and maybe only a handful (if that) of good restaurants to book for dinner meetings – this part, I can’t stand, and it’s difficult to do some business. DOCS FOR SALES video library is great – I live there. Really great! I can request films directly from sales agents, give feedback and send myself emails about the films. THE FORUM feels a little stale, and as a programmer, there weren’t that many films that looked interesting. If I was a first-time person in the industry, I wouldn’t really have a clue how it works. Overall, I like IDFA, and it’s an important fest – especially for us to guage what is going on, and we go every year."
Industry: "Remains the most important show face festival of the year. While the Forum is eclipsing itself - the staff is taking strides to update it and make it fresh. This and Sheffield are my votes for "getting business done" festivals."
Industry: "The other must attend event of the year although with the huge and admirably comprehensive selection of films it is inevitably a curate’s egg in terms of quality. Don’t know how you could make yourself heard here if you didn’t have a film in comp. The Forum is well organized and still sine qua non but choice of projects can be old fashioned and perplexing. Consistently shit weather – sorry it does make a difference – and lame parties at Escape venue. The Guests Meet Guests with its deep fried cheeseballs is particularly grueling. The lower ranking staff can be obstructive jobsworths but senior staff are charm itself. Grumbles beginning to make themselves heard re: static leadership and need for fresh blood."
Industry: "The Costco or Mall of America of non fiction filmmaking. A doc lovers/makers/shoppers galore. Amsterdam is dope (pun semi-intended). Bad: The euro is stronger than the dollar. Massive: You can get swallowed up amidst the offerings."
Industry: "I know it irks the folks at Sheffield but IDFA is the most important EURO market/festival for us. Period. (We always have someone at the Forum or on juries) so they cover airfare and lodging- for the judging and the festival; a bit grueling but very productive for us overall."
Industry: "Great for UK and European sales and can give a big life for potential US sales for films that win or build a strong profile like LAST TRAIN HOME, BURMA VJ, STRANDED, etc."
Industry: "IDFA felt the same as ten years ago. If it is to regain its laurels it needs a kick up the bum."
And now, Toronto:
Our take: As essential documentary platform, particularly for films with a hope of theatrical. This year alone, seven of the top 11 grossing nonfiction films had North American premieres at Toronto. It remains one of the four major festivals (with Sundance, Berlin and Cannes) and that alone confers a certain amount of prestige and want-to-see value on your film. Doc programmer Thom Powers has beefed up other documentary elements within the festival during his tenure so that the nonfiction strand can feel like a fest within a fest. For filmmakers, the periphery can be an amazing experience as you find yourself seated around a table with a host of venerable, international filmmakers.
The downside: But make no mistake, that fest is massive. And docs, particularly those without a media-friendly subject (Hugh Hefner, Chris Rock, Daniel Ellsberg, Valentino), can get swallowed up as, unlike Sundance, the media primarily jockeys for position covering the festival high-wattage celebrity aspect. Prepare to work very hard.
Important recent premieres: FOOD, INC., VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR (North American), MORE THAN A GAME, COLLAPSE, COLONY, THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN THE WORLD: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS, VIDEOCRACY, CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY (North American)
Our coverage of Toronto here.
Filmmaker: "awesome and special kudos to Thom for making it special for doc filmmakers."
Filmmaker: "The reputation of smart, generous and real audiences was justified for us. I've heard that docs get overshadowed by narratives there but I felt we got a lot of attention. Only complaint would be the diffuse venues but now with everything at the new facility that is addressed."
Filmmaker: "Docs at Toronto are always thoughtfully programmed, but still take a way back seat to the narratives. The venues are so spread out that it doesn't feel like much of a festival atmosphere for out of towners and it is often hard to find people."
Filmmaker: "TIFF absolutely serves our needs as filmmakers. We could not have felt more supported, and were beyond thrilled with the help and guidance we received in spreading the word about our film to both the general public and the buyers. TIFF paid for the director's airfare and his hotel stay. We felt that despite the festival's size, prestige, and star sightings, if felt very personal to us, and we looked forward to seeing the same friendly faces during our time there. Truly a great festival."
Filmmaker: "look out Sundance, TIFF becomes more and more relevant for docs, but one has to fight for press against stars."
Filmmaker: "really fun but bit scarily massive...excellent audiences though"
Filmmaker: "Even more of a convention feel than Sundance. All expenses covered. Great for press."
Filmmaker: "I loved my experience at Toronto."
Filmmaker: "BIG fest. paid for all. great press, great audiences. nice documentary dinner to connect filmmakers."
Industry: "Love the festival but what you get out of it really depends. Very very difficult for foreign films and docs without distribution to get any attention whatsoever. If you’re there with a film that has cast, and a fall release date, easier but the first 5 days are so crowded with the big Hollywood fall offerings, its almost impossible to get anyone meaningful to see your film unless you’re one of the big ones. If you’re a little one, I’d aim for Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday - most journalists leave Tuesday and Wednesday. They offer hotel, and $ towards filmmaker airfare.
Industry: "tiff is big. For doc filmmakers, it’s a little lonesome, and for an international fest, their doc programming is very US-centric. Still, the few docs they pick do very well, and let’s face it, Toronto is a great market, guaranteed to have great audiences. It is an expensive fest for locals to attend…which does make people feel alienated from the event. I LOVE the Press/Industry screenings they have – we get to see a lot and get a lot done. In general, obviously I love TIFF as an industry person. As a public person, it’s frustrating, as you spend most of your time in lineups. *still, an important fest, and I think actually one of the best run Industry fests. "
Industry: "They do an awesome job of blending public and industry. A lot of titles get lost in the shuffle but a great place to launch a festival year if you can get in."
Industry: "A great track record for docs in recent years. Toronto continues to be a place where successful docs are launched."
Industry: "Sundance and Toronto are the best festivals to sell docs but the right slot is key"
Industry: "Of all the festivals I go to, it’s the one I’ve gone to the most often for the longest time. I hate the programming. I think it’s gone really downhill. If there’s some star connected to the documentary, it’s going to get in. I think the events that Thom has put into play around documentary are very good. I know Cameron is really committed to documentary but it doesn’t matter. The documentaries get overshadowed. At the same time, a film premieres there and it gets put on the map. If you want to get your film to go to that next level, it’s really important to be at a festival like Toronto. It’s a very difficult decision on whether to premiere at Toronto. There are real pluses and minuses. But overall it’s a wonderful festival."
Industry: "Toronto rocks! Great
knowledgeable, film audiences. Programming is first rate. Press attendance is
strong and international in scope. Facilities are first rate. But, TIFF is junket city which means unless yours
is the rare doc that has a studio push, celeb and/or theatrical date behind it,
you will have to battle for scraps."
Industry: "If you have
a good theatrical documentary, a place with a celebrity connection, it’s a
really good place to launch. The
whole infrastructure is based on that.
The media is there to do interviews with celebrities. I think you need
marketing money or a good marketing component to get a lot out of that
festival. You don’t see a lot of
these smaller films succeeding there as they might at Sundance. The doc industry just isn’t there."
Industry: "This year was my first Toronto and I really loved it. For a member of the press, the P&I screening set-up is ultra-smooth and easy. I was only shut out of one film, and I got there irresponsibly late. For such a huge festival, it somehow manages to retain a calm, unhurried atmosphere. I can't wait to return."
Industry: "I don't like Toronto. They don't pay for anything. They seem to program based on celebrity draw. You can't get into films. I almost things docs don't belong there unless they're about, or narrated by, celebrities. They certainly aren't cutting edge. In all fairness, docs aren't the point of TIFF. So I don't think I'll apply there anymore."
Industry: "We scour its lineup for films to call in but we don’t regularly attend. Maybe it’s because they never invite us to be on panels or juries, who knows? But we pay close attention to what happens there."
Industry: "Essential for programmers, with ultra-comprehensive programming. There should be more repeats in press/industry screening
Industry: "Love it"
Industry: "Love it"
Next: Top Festival #4